West sacks Bosnian officials over refugee returns

SARAJEVO, Sep 9, 2000 -- (Reuters) Western envoys on Friday sacked 15 Bosnian officials for allegedly obstructing the return of refugees to their pre-war homes.

Those removed from their posts were mainly local officials in charge of housing, property repossession and return issues in different towns in post-war Bosnia's two autonomous entities - the Serb republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

The list also included a Bosnian Serb deputy refugee minister.

They were accused of obstructing the implementation of property legislation designed to make it easier for refugees to return home.

"All those removed officials worked against those wishing to repossess their property, the very people they should assist," said a spokeswoman for international High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, who oversees Bosnia's peace process.

She did not give details of the individual cases.

Petritsch, who has sweeping powers to speed up implementation of the peace process, removed the officials in consultation with Robert Barry, head of mission in Bosnia of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"The 15 officials in question ignored, abused, obstructed and failed to enforce laws they were tasked to implement, pursuing an extra-legal agenda and abusing their offices," a joint statement from Petritsch and Barry said.

Refugee returns are seen as crucial to Western efforts to rebuild Bosnia into a multi-ethnic society and reverse the brutal "ethnic cleansing" that characterized the 1992-95 war.

But almost five years after the conflict about 1.1 million people still live as refugees, either abroad or internally displaced.

The returns have been particularly slow in areas where those going back would be in an ethnic minority.

Western envoys regularly accuse local officials of obstructing the return of refugees from another ethnic group.

To speed up the process, the international body overseeing the peace process has pushed through property legislation requiring local authorities to evict those who occupy property belonging to refugees.

Such evictions are often politically sensitive, with local authorities reluctant to anger members of their own community.

Petritsch and his predecessor, Spanish diplomat Carlos Westendorp, have removed dozens of local officials for obstructing efforts to solidify peace in the Balkan country.

Original article